The in-flight programming market earns its wings

Most of you will probably agree that nothing quite compares to the sheer panic that washes over business travelers who get stuck seated next to children on overseas flights. But many airlines have started to institute personalized entertainment options that help alleviate some of the problems that can arise from failing to properly entertain kids on long hauls.
October 1, 2004

Most of you will probably agree that nothing quite compares to the sheer panic that washes over business travelers who get stuck seated next to children on overseas flights. But many airlines have started to institute personalized entertainment options that help alleviate some of the problems that can arise from failing to properly entertain kids on long hauls.

It used to be that airline entertainment consisted of not much more than a recent theatrical movie aired on a largish screen at the front of the cabins. Since the majority of kids are unable to see over the seat in front of them and since most of these movies tended to be adult-targeted anyway, younger passengers were pretty much left to their own devices. Over the last 10 years, however, 4×3-inch personal video monitors have evolved from a first-class perk to a fairly standard facet of economy airline travel, and that has really opened the door to children’s programming opportunities.

PVMs give airlines the breadth of airspace to offer niche content for specific viewing demos, and most now feature at least one family or kid-flavored channel option. Big kid spender British Airways, which has an 18-channel universe on some of its fleet, runs five or six family programming destinations during its key family traveling months over Christmas, Easter and summer, ranging from a Playhouse Disney block to an in-house teen movie channel.

Steve Harvey is GM of service provider Inflight Productions’ London office, a go-between outfit that cherry-picks shows from TV distributors’ catalogues on behalf of airline clients. He estimates that the entry of kids fare is helping to grow the size of the in-flight programming market by 20% to 30% each year.

The airplane channel universe might be getting bigger, but buyers working in this medium generally aren’t very willing to risk losing viewers with non-established programming. Michael Freedman, executive producer of in-flight entertainment for Australia’s Qantas Airlines, says blockbuster kids movies and the most popular TV shows work best because airlines aim to replicate the viewing comforts of home.

But some airlines are also starting to look at evergreen content that appeals primarily to kids, but also to adults on a nostalgic level. For example, Nelvana recently signed a deal with Cathay Pacific for retro toon Rupert the Bear.

As far as modern TV fare goes, most in-flight entertainment managers scan broadcast and cable ratings to gauge the performance of shows they’re considering for acquisition. And if a series has done particularly well in a certain territory, the airline will pick it up for its PVM channels on flights to and from that region. Harvey adds that some airlines, including British Airways and KLM, conduct periodic on-board surveys to find out what shows are best connecting with their passengers.

Kidnets with deep branded libraries, such as Disney and Cartoon Network, are increasingly selling their programming in bulk packages that can run as full-on feeds or blocks. Linda Palmer, senior VP of Buena Vista non-theatrical, sells Disney-branded in-flight blocks that are essentially two-hour collections of the best episodes from its most popular series. And even Nelvana, which doesn’t operate a channel, is currently stringing together blocks of programming for airlines including Virgin Atlantic.

British Airways’ entertainment program manager Dee Brady says she prefers to have one-stop shopping meetings with Cartoon and Disney once a year or once every other year because she finds it more cost-effective and efficient to purchase packages rather than bits and pieces from various distributors.

Most airlines contract a service provider like IFP or Spafax to do their digging for them, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Virgin Airlines deals directly with distributors and prefers to buy individual shows rather than blocks. Emma Gesto, the company’s manager of TV acquisitions, operates this way to get an entire lineup of hits, without the filler shows that are sometimes used to pad out blocks.

Gesto is gearing up for the December launch of a dedicated Virgin kids channel that will loop a two-hour block of half-hour shows including My Parents are Aliens and Tracy Beaker, both from Entertainment Rights. To keep this block refreshed, Gesto plans to hit MIPCOM and reacquaint herself with kids distributors she’s dealt with before, as well as scoping for new contacts. IFP’s Harvey and reps from Spafax are also making the trip to Cannes this month.

On average, in-flight license fees range from US$1,000 to US$2,000 for unlimited, non-exclusive rights to air a half-hour show over a two-month period. But volume deals and the age and attractiveness of the program(s) on the auction block can often lower or raise the fee outside of these general parameters. Recently released movies usually cost a little more and are typically calculated using a per-flight pricing formula. On most long-haul flights, airlines with PVMs give family-friendly movies and TV programming pretty equal play.

Siobhan Cullen, Nelvana’s airline sales exec for Northern Europe, says airlines without package deals will typically meet with their service providers once every two or three months, and usually end up buying one or two episodes from a series at a time. If the eps generate positive feedback from passengers, they’ll come back for a couple more at the next meeting. ‘It’s great because we can take a program like The Fairly OddParents and split the viewing around between different airlines,’ adds Lynn Chadwick, Nelvana’s director of Northern European sales.

Entertainment Rights’ director of international sales, Chloe van den Berg, says offering a program with multiple language tracks is very attractive to the international airlines, which run flights servicing people from many diverse cultures. Most of these global players’ planes are equipped to provide language tracks, so ER either produces dubs itself or licenses foreign-language tracks from its broadcast partners. But a critical hurdle that blocks some in-flight programming deals relates to clearance. Spafax, for example, expects the distributors it deals with to know exactly what air rights are available by territory at any give time, as well as what elements within a show (i.e. music) are owned by the producer.

Mirroring the television market, video-on-demand is poised to trigger the next evolution of in-flight entertainment. Virgin has VOD options on some of its flights already, and British Airways is working on introducing the technology, but with no specific timeframe in mind. VOD lets passengers exercise complete control over their entertainment, giving them the ability to start and stop movies and TV programming at will.

To keep up with this added value for passengers, Nelvana’s Cullen says her company has started to regularly incorporate VOD rights in its in-flight contracts. Disney/Buena Vista’s Palmer has observed that airlines with VOD systems have been opting to pick up older titles that come with longer rights windows because the increased capacity of the technology means content can sit on an aircraft for longer periods of time. She says if an airline has a VOD system with 20 channels, there’s room for classic content as well as hit-driven titles.

VOD also allows airlines to track in-flight program viewing with more precision, mapping out data that shows what passengers watched and for how long. On equipped Virgin flights, a ratings system kicks into gear after five minutes, and Gesto says the only shows that can’t be measured are preschool short series with episodes that are under five minutes in length.

Australia’s Qantas Airlines is already moving beyond VOD to equip parts of its fleet with Live TV systems that feed satellite signals into the planes’ entertainment units. Four-year-old American airline JetBlue’s domestic flights currently offer a 24-channel live television link to its PVMs from DirecTV satellite.

Eric Brinker, manager of product and brand development at JetBlue, says the complimentary service is designed to replicate the DirecTV service passengers may enjoy at home, and it broadcasts cable networks including Nickelodeon and Animal Planet.

But does live satellite television on airlines spell the end of in-flight entertainment programming? ‘It’s not affecting the industry all that much,’ says IFP’s Harvey, who maintains that VOD is a more immediate trend because it gives the airline complete control over the content it airs and because its contracts and license issues are really straight-forward.

JetBlue’s Brinker says his airline hasn’t run into any live TV licensing problems because it’s strictly a domestic carrier and because it works in the same way as a restaurant or bar that broadcasts baseball games to its patrons. ‘We’re taking a live, unedited commercial signal off a satellite,’ he says. ‘There are no rights issues because it’s live and we’re airing it in a commercial establishment.’

Some doubt has also been expressed about whether live TV is an effective feed for kids programming. Although the topic has been hotly debated the World Airline Entertainment Association’s Annual Conference and Exhibition, an in-flight programming market that takes place in Washington every September, British Airways’ Brady says the system may only make sense for live news and live sports, ‘I don’t think it’s that important for children’s TV to be live because there’s no immediacy to it.’

Whether or not they offer satellite apps, most airlines recognize that staying on the cutting edge of entertainment options is an important part of their customer service strategy, and they’re increasingly willing to make an investment in this arena. But it’s also the kind of service that’s tightly tied to the financial strength of its provider. ‘If the airline is making money, they’ll give you a decent budget to work with,’ notes IFP’s Harvey. ‘But as soon as the airline starts to lose money, in-flight entertainment is something they economize on.’

About The Author


Brand Menu